Juliette Mahieux Bartoli: Figures have always been at the heart of my painting

AMM: After visiting your show at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London we were completely mesmerised by your work. Could you please share with us your story, what drew you to the UK both for University and now your art career?

JMB: I grew up moving around (Paris, Washington DC, Geneva, Rome) and there was no obvious place for me to set roots. I had for a long time felt the UK could be right for me, and more specifically London. There is something about the culture here that I like; a mix of the sense of humour, the respect of eccentricity, the ambition, the manners. London is such an international city I can fit in. I started developing a community during my BA and continued from there. So my base is now here, although I will never stop returning to Rome. In many ways Rome is the city of my heart, and I need to return once in a while.

AMM: Could you describe your vision behind the scenes of your paintings?

JMB: I want to create a space people can project into. Like windows into another world, where we get a glimpse of characters that can reflect something back to us. To me the dancers are real, they are just real in a different dimension; the way we interpret that dimension and how much that reading concedes to us is of our own making.  I want to give a voice to a narrative of hybrid identity – in a poetic, theatrical, and perhaps also political way – with the energy and colour of the show conveying strength and hope.

AMM: Tell us about your studio. How do you start your day and what is your creative process like? How does each painting come to life?

JMB: There are different phases to my creative process. It always starts from the concept. Every series needs a soul, and that can involve a lot of reading and writing to clarify verbally what my aim is. Then there is the compositional phase; first the playful/performative part that is very active and physical, then once I have that visual material it can take a long time to find the compositions on photoshop that I am satisfied with.  This part can take months. Then I transfer the compositions onto canvas. I have developed the way I paint over years; I learned much by studying paintings as practice. I always have a range of reference books open in the studio while I paint: lately it’s been mostly Artemisia Gentileschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and some Ingres print-outs.

AMM: Do you use photographical references or are your paintings purely from your own imagination? 

JMB: I use photos as references for most things. They are very much part of the composition process.  Photographs give me access to the immediacy of gestures that poses would petrify. There are a few things I will paint from imagination, but they are more mutations of photos or details of drapery that don’t quite do what I need them to do.

AMM: The subtle ‘soaring’ female figure in your works and the vibrant and empty pictorial spaces surrounding it look absolutely breathtaking and surreal. The ‘cut out’ feel in your work brings the sense of a ‘contemporary renaissance’. How do you achieve so much definition and precision in your paintings? And how do you plan where to ‘cut out’ your figures?

JMB: The precision is just a matter of time and being a perfectionist. A tricky patch of drapery of 30 x 30 cm can be a full day’s work.  I don’t mind the long hours, they are meditative. As for the ‘cut outs’, that is a part of composing, and it’s hard to explain. It’s a mixture of a sense of balance overall, how I want to interfere with the bodies, where I want the movement to lead the character. A lot of it is playing around and being sensitive to what the character wants me to do. I’ve heard writers describe this when writing characters in a book; I feel it very much in my painted characters as well.

AMM: Although most of your paintings seem to take inspiration from the old masters’ works, your art seems, in part, to be a way for you to understand your own history; would you say your work in any way reveals your personal story?

JMB: Creative output is infused with our history. The human mind is like a very complex computer we haven’t figured out yet.  You put stuff in, we bring stuff out. My history is what taught me the language I speak, both aesthetically and conceptually. So yes, my ‘aesthetic language’ has a lot of the old masters in it, because that is much of what I grew up seeing; that language is one I am using to tell my own stories and reach my own conclusions. Even the content of this body of work comes out of a personal experience: I speak of cultural fusion and hybrid identity, obviously my desire to tackle these issues comes out of my experience dealing with them, but I think they are much bigger than me.  In fact, realising that many people could relate to these feelings of hybrid identity gives me great comfort.

AMM: How has your work evolved over the years? What are you focusing on now as opposed to when you first started painting?

JMB: Figures have always been at the heart of my painting. It belies a fascination of mine with how we understand our psychology and our purpose. I have always tried to construct images that if unpicked can present the viewer with a way of understanding themselves. It’s why I love myths. With this latest series I have pushed my love of colour to the fore, and with it has come fragmentation. I realised that I can bring my love of narrative into my visual work, with all its literary and philosophical implications. So the figures have gained a sharper purpose, and a more vibrant world to explore it in.

AMM: Do you try to promote your own work, and if so, could you share some of your strategies and experiences about it?

JMB: Promoting sounds terribly profane, but you can’t be an artist and hide your work away. It doesn’t live if nobody sees it; so you have to get it seen. Whether it is through group shows or studio visits or social media.

AMM: What’s the most memorable art show that surprised you?

JMB: Difficult. Matisse cut outs (Tate Modern 2014). I did not expect to be so affected by it. It made me happy for hours after leaving and couldn’t get it out of my head and eyes for months. Still I remember it. I only really had paid attention to earlier Matisse before, the use of colour and pattern. I didn’t know much about the later work. He combines classical form with an energy and purity of colour that I keep returning to, and that helps me clear my head when I am having trouble with compositional difficulties of my own. He is also the direct descendant in a line of artists that each has significance to me: Raphael influenced Ingres who influenced Matisse.

AMM: Any inspiration or advice which you’d like to share with fellow artists?

JMB: Be stubborn. If you want to do something, and it’s not trendy and you keep getting told you shouldn’t do it, it’s a good sign.

It has also been crucial for me to realise I am part of a community, that we are building together the cultural bricks of this era’s art history; time and hindsight will be the mortar.

Find out more about the artist: www.juliettemahieuxbartoli.com